Issue 25: Shara McCallum

from No Ruined Stone

Author’s Note

The suite of poems that follow is an excerpt of a forthcoming book-length verse sequence, No Ruined Stone. With one exception, the poems here are in the voice of 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns. In the winter of 2015, on my first visit to Scotland, I learned a lesser-known story about Burns: late in the summer of 1786, he had actively planned to emigrate from Scotland to Jamaica, to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation on the island. “Bookkeeper” in this context was a misnomer, as the men who held those position were responsible for daily overseeing and managing the work performed by enslaved Africans.

As a lover of Burns’ poems, I carried that story of his near-migration around with me, like a sore or gap in the mouth one’s tongue keeps finding, and it provoked a question: What would have happened had he gone? Such an interrogation of history most often falls to novelists to pursue. But being a poet, I felt compelled to ask poems to do the work of responding.

Inexorably, that first question led only to others and returned me to some of my earliest and ongoing obsessions and vexations: with the concept of Nature, the Pastoral, and the contemporary Ecopoem, Romanticism, the history of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Enlightenment, women’s rights, struggles to abolish slavery, miscegenation and passing, absent fathers and mothers and countries, mental illness, migration and exile.

No Ruined Stone, the resulting book-length sequence, offers a speculative account of the past, voiced primarily by a fictive Burns, who migrates to Jamaica, and by one of his descendants, a granddaughter and white-presenting black woman who migrates to Scotland in the early 19th-century. The story is neither true nor autobiographical. But it is tied to truths of my personal and family narrative as well as the foundational narrative of Jamaica, the country I am from and one birthed by the tectonic meeting of the Americas, Africa, and Europe.

from No Ruined Stone

The Bard

Jamaica, 1786-1796

My life reminded me of a ruined temple.

—Robert Burns

1. River Ayr

Wending in its winding,

nothing so fickle, unreliable

resides in us as conscience,

proving itself unworthy

of halting the course of passion.

In Alloway, the river ran

past the mill on its way to sea,

and I, a boy, wandered

to-and-fro along its banks.

Wending in its winding,

undeterred by rock or stone,

as the current surged, urged

the water forward, so I

flung myself into that force.

2. The Hour of Dream

In the space before dawn

something enters

wafting with wind

across the window’s transom

in silvered light her sweet

sonsie face graces

my sleeping and

on waking she is

the sun settling trees

back into their rightful

selves on waking

she is all

that might obliterate

for a moment

the dark

3. Dear Gilbert,

The novelty of a Poet

in my obscure situation has raised me

to some height. When talk turns to Slavery,

arguments for its brutal necessity

prevail, and I sit at the table of plenty,

bite back my tongue. Our men,

transplanted to rocky soil, struck

a Faustian bargain. How could they

turn against themselves? And I,

who find myself among the rubble,

am only a rhyming Mason, flatterer

seeking my name through poetry,

armament against my further ruin.

I was born to the class that labours.

I toil under this sun yet cannot meet

its lease. The few pounds I clear,

I submit to you, dear brother,

for those entrusted to my care.

I know full well I am insufficient

to this or any other earthly task.

Long having studied myself, I ken

pretty exactly what ground

I stand upon. In serving the Muse,

I have often forsaken the Life.

4. For Promised Joy

Suffer me to want her.

Suffer me to ask for nothing

but laughter, hers filling

the drafts and breathing

hollows of my room.

Each time she enters, suffer me

to be suffused in scent

of her, my eyes condemned

by sight of her. Suffer me

to ask love to dwell

in a place not meant

for love’s habitation,

in vain to take

what is mine and not mine,

to theft from brutality beauty,

without hesitation, without

thought of consequence.

Suffer me to face love’s cruelty

that knows no boundary.

5. Bard

On this island, distinction between

planter and bookkeeper wanes. Home,

or its ghost, binds us, an apparition

holding powerful sway. Bard,

they ask me to ferry Scotia

in tunes increasingly played

in drawing rooms from Port Antonio

to Kingston, salving exile’s wounds.

Bard, in truth my name has made

a small noise across this island,

in Masonic halls, at planter’s balls.

My life’s wish has only ever been

to make a song the equal to Nature,

to the stories of our heroic countrymen

who sheltered in every den and dell.

In Jamaica, if they bid me sing,

am I not all I ever wanted to be?

6. Douglas’s Reply

They are good for nothing but toiling and fucking.

Don’t talk to me of the inalienable rights

of man. These are not men. The proof

of their brutish nature? Tell me: who

of our lot could withstand such bestial labour

under this punishing sun? Who of our women

would squat in fields to give birth,

like the lowliest of animals, or take the whip

but be unbridled in bed? You’ve had

your taste of her, choosing to forget

what was from the start inevitable. You think

you are the first to be pricked by regret,

standing here, idiotically spouting off

of love? Telling me you’ve taken the liberty,

nae the trouble, to write my brother? Good God,

you are more stupid, man, than even I

imagined. Of course he took pity on you.

My brother lives in the manner I secure for him

and wants to know nothing of the how,

the sacrifices exacted daily. My brother

believes he is good. And I let him. I am who

stops his fiction from fraying, who keeps

his whole damn world spinning.

Like so many of our countrymen

at a remove, he has turned soft and warms

to the notion these Africans have souls.

The prigs back home grow fatter and fatter

on sugar, never stepping foot on this island,

never knowing what the likes of you and I

endure. Yet they think they can legislate

to us what is right and wrong? Now,

when we are so far gone, now they are ready

to address the moral cause. Did you really

expect whatever reply my brother sent

to sway me? Womanish sentimentality

has always been your undoing, Burns. Lofty ideals

may find audience in drawing rooms

of the few. But ask yourself: what have idle

or even impassioned debates ever amounted to,

besides self-righteous piety? Better yet,

ask your drinking companions, for all this talk

of rights, what they do with their nights.

Where do you think these mulattoes and reds

running all about have come from, and what

exactly would happen to our way of life

were every mongrel and half-breed saved?

I ken the desire to do right by your family

back in Ayshire—though by that measure

I’m afraid you’ve also missed the mark.

But to entertain or scheme to buy the wench

or this bairn you believe yours? That is right madness.

Burns, a way out you could not buy yourself.

7. Dear Gilbert,

Darkness and Despair loiter,

training me in their sights. Once more,

I have been transported

by the thought I could say farewell

to the pain and weariness of life.

A hundred times I’ve wished

I could resign it as an officer

resigns commission. But this letter

from you has brought me back.

Our Mason brothers have taken up

the cause of this poor poet,

there is talk of a second printing.

Can it be true, the dream possible

in exile? That I might glimmer

into futurity? Or is it more madness

to think poverty and obscurity

are not my only path ahead, pride

again deceiving me,entreating me

believe I may be remembered

through my creations? These creatures

have long been my sole, my only

faithful companion, brother. Here,

as elsewhere, they are counterpoise

to a world I’ve never known

as anything but alien.

8. Tam O’ Shanter

In the wee hours I was returning

from a Mason gathering where I’d been bousing.

Perchance the whiskey or rain and wind

that rose up round me, howling, muddled

my brain, but past and present agreed

to an exchange. I was carried over sea

back to Alloway, my horse and I passing

the auld Kirkyard, moving at such a pace

to gain the key-stone of the bridge.

Something pursued us that night. I knew

not what exactly, but recalling evil spirits

cannot follow a body over water,

I spurred my mare to full-frothed gallop,

and she brought us clattering across the river.

Zig-zagging a path the rest of our journey,

we arrived once more at Springbank,

where I set pen to page to recount this tale

I enclose, dear brother, the story of our hero

Tam and the fateful night he met with bogles

(duppies, here, the same creature) on the road.

Poor Tam, on his misbegotten ride, could nae

tether time nor tide. Benighted traveller,

he was nae wise yet saw—whatever danger

may be in plunging forward,

there is ever more in turning back.

From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of six books published in the US and UK, including No Ruined Stone (Alice James Books, US, and Peepal Tree Press, UK - forthcoming 2021), a verse sequence based on an alternate account of history and Scottish poet Robert Burns’ near migration to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation. Her previous book, Madwoman, received the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry and the 2018 Motton Book Prize from the New England Poetry Club.

La historia es un Cuarto/History is a Room, an anthology of poems selected from across her six books and translated and introduced by Adalber Salas Hernandez, will be published in 2021 by Mantis Editores in Mexico. She is a Liberal Arts Professor of English at Penn State University and on the faculty of the Pacific University Low-Residency MFA Program.

Copyright © 2021 by Shara McCallumr, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.